UCSD ranked a global top 10 biomedical institute

UC San Diego ranks among the top 10 institutions worldwide in biomedical research, according to the prestigious journal Nature.

The 2019 Nature Index rated UCSD ninth, up from 17th a year ago. Scripps Research rated 29th. Harvard University was first; the National Institutes of Health second; with the Chinese Academy of Sciences third. The results were released Wednesday.

The institutions are rated on the number and quality of research papers submitted to more than 80 journals, including Nature, Science and Cell. The 2019 ratings were based on papers published from 2015 through 2018. The index, which goes back to 2016, can be found at http://bit.ly/nib2019.

UCSD has made a campuswide emphasis on integrating large sets of data into varying areas of biomedical research, said Dr. David Brenner, vice chancellor for health sciences. Moreover, the researchers in those areas collaborate to apply the findings.

"We have a research environment where people in computer science and medicine collaborate and they end up getting enormous insights," Brenner said.

For example, engineers are embedded with physician-scientists at the Altman Clinical and Translational Research Institute. And UCSD's health care system supplies a clinical component, with access to patients and experimental treatments.

Other San Diego area entities also ranked high in specific sectors of biomedicine. Among independent biomedical institutions, Scripps Research ranked second, up from fifth a year ago. Salk Institute ranked sixth. Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute rated 13th; and La Jolla Institute for Immunology was listed at 26.

The Max Planck Society in Germany came in first.

Scripps Research is notable in areas such as synthetic chemistry, neuroscience and vaccine research, said Jamie Williamson, executive vice president of research and academic affairs.

"It's really across the board and that's gratifying," Williamson said. However, he says going from second to first place isn't realistic. Max Planck Society is "massive," he said. The society has 84 institutes and research facilities, it says on its website.

"The other thing that struck me is that San Diego is looking pretty good on this list," Williamson said. "It's actually a very special place, because we have Scripps and Salk and Sanford Burnham Prebys and the La Jolla Institute, and they're all pretty high up on this list. And I don't think there's another geographical location that has that concentration."

The Salk Institute's strengths include cancer research, which includes a number of medications made possible by findings from researcher Tony Hunter, and plant research by Joanne Chory. Among more recent additions, Janelle Ayres is studying how dangerous "superbugs" might be tamed.

“Salk continues to live up to the promise of Institute founder Jonas Salk of a place for groundbreaking discoveries, be it in our efforts to understand and treat cancer and neurodegenerative diseases or addressing the immediate threat of climate change,” Martin Hetzer, Salk vice president and chief science offer, said by email. "We are deeply gratified to see the dedication of our scientists to exploration and discovery reflected in the Nature Index rankings.”

For corporate biomedical research, Carlsbad's Ionis Pharmaceuticals ranked 15th worldwide, with San Diego's Illumina rating 22nd; Human Longevity at 27th; and Synthetic Genomics at 39th. Swiss drug maker Roche came in first.

Brenner said the prominence of these local companies adds an extra dimension to San Diego County's life science industry.

Spinraza, a blockbuster Ionis drug for spinal muscular atrophy, was developed with the help of technology from the lab of UCSD neurobiologist Don W. Cleveland. His collaboration extends to Ionis drugs now in testing for ALS and Huntington's disease.

"Ionis is the best institute, commercial or nonprofit, in RNA therapeutics," Brenner said. "Illumina is the best company in the world in next-generation sequencing. And we benefit by being neighbors and collaborating with them."

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